Galleries - June 2018

JUNE 2018 GALLERIES 43 2018 is the anniversary of female suffrage in the UK and the year of #MeToo. The NPG trail is a timely event. By today’s standards, the social behaviour of some of the men on the walls (take the infamously ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ Lord Byron for example, or the sexually abusive Eric Gill) so often fell short of their creative, political or military accomplishments. And their sheer number in the gallery, relative to their female counterparts, is problematic in its own right. The NPG has reacted to all this by making more of its female subjects. Contemporary women such as Miranda Hart, Ali Smith and Gillian Wearing have contributed writings about each portrait on the trail, contextualising and illustrating the impact these figures have had. Hart writes of Beatrix Potter, for example: “I had been inspired by her confidence to make no compromises in her art.” Though further diversification may be due, this is an important step in the right direction. By emphasising some of the lesser- known stories, the gallery has become a more complete cast of characters positioned in relation to one another, while keeping the women from fading into the background. Patricia Derby With all the publicity fanfare currently surrounding the Royal Academy's 250th anniversary celebrations, huge new gallery spaces and more, it is interesting to recall what dire straits the institution was in at its 200th. An astounding loan show, stuffed with Turners, Constables, Stubbs, Gainsboroughs et al, attended by barely 60,000 visitors, a Summer Exhibition attracting just 40,000, the coffers bare, Henry Moore and every other modern artist crossing to the other side of Piccadilly rather than pass its doors, and a recently sacked Secretary –the place had seemingly hit rock bottom, unfit, almost, for purpose. I went to work there six months after that bicentenary show closed and found a new President, Sir Thomas Monnington, an ex- Slade teacher who was willing to make changes; I was allowed to set up a press office, only the third in a London institution at that time – with an ex-Arts Council head of art brought in to revamp the exhibition programme. Contemporary artists slowly started filtering back into the membership during the early 70s – Eduardo Paolozzi, Peter Blake, Bryan Kneale among others – and visitor numbers started climbing dramatically with over 700,000 attending the great Turner exhibition in 1974/5 – 13,000 is still the unsurpassed day record. The ground was laid for the next great leap forward instituted by Sir Hugh Casson – sponsorship and a dynamically successful Friends organisation (over 100,000 members today) providing the necessary financial support for an ever more adventurous exhibitions’ programme. The rest, as they say, is history, with the likes of Tracey Emin, Antony Gormley and Grayson Perry all now members. I had left by the late 70s, watching its huge revival ever since with a degree of awe but, at the risk of sounding grudging, some apprehension also at the emphasis I see now on money and success at all costs. And then look at the huge gap that still lies between its 128 strong membership and the needs and interests of the vast majority of practising artists in this country, which was why Sir Joshua Reynolds and his colleagues started it up in the first place in 1768. Nicholas Usherwood That the National Portrait Gallery’s event dedicated to female sitters is in the form of a scavenger hunt gets right to the heart of the issue: sure, there are great women in history, but you might have to do some legwork to find them. ‘The Rebel Women Trail’ takes visitors through the forest of men’s faces up to portraits of pioneering women. Queen Elizabeth I (1533- 1603), British-Jamaican nurse Mary Seacole (1805-81) and ballerina Margot Fonteyn (1919-91) might be strange bedfellows in some contexts. Here, they are united as women who fought to improve their positions and, in some cases, the world they inhabited. CODA from left: D elmar Banner ‘Beatrix Potter’ © National Portrait Gallery, London Chris Orr ‘The Fauves Picnic’ Royal Academy of Arts F eminine subject Academic life